Back in Sept. 2, 2010, it was announced that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield would leave Earth’s atmosphere for a third time and make history as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station.
The Canadian Space Agency recognized the opportunity early on. Soon after the announcement, the agency and Col. Hadfield began dreaming up ways they could engage the Canadian public on the six-month post.
Their mission: how to make space sexy for a generation of Canadians grown jaded by Hollywood trickery.
“We don’t have that many fly opportunities,” said Anna Kapiniari, the strategic communications manager with the CSA. “NASA is in space all the time, and we get to fly a Canadian astronaut only every couple of years. So, we really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity of having a human being in space. To tell a story. … [We] had a lot of brainstorming sessions, and we came up with a lot of crazy ideas. And in the end, we just kept the best ones. And that’s what you saw during this mission.”
This week, Col. Hadfield returned to Earth, crashing into a Kazakhztani field inside Soyuz capsule, as an international media star.
Before blasting off on Dec. 19, 2012, the astronaut was far from a household name. But after a media blitz while orbiting the Earth — including a steady stream of snapshots of Earth’s stark landscapes, an interstellar ceremonial puck drop at the Toronto Maple Leafs home opener, and a viral video of the astronaut covering David Bowie’s Space Oddity — Col. Hadfield has nearly one million followers on Twitter, more than 336,000 Facebook followers and has become a global media darling.
“The experience of leaving Earth is still very new for humanity,” said Col. Hadfield on Thursday, during his first press conference since his return. “And the ability to explain it and to share it is growing leaps and bounds, through the technology that’s available.”
His meteoric rise appears effortless, but his star turn was the result of months of planning, co-ordination between the Canadian Space Agency, Col. Hadfield and his son, Evan, and the natural talents of the personable astronaut.
“We knew who we were working with. … He’s got a great imagination, and he’s funny,” said Ms. Kapiniari.
Perhaps the strongest weapon in his arsenal was Col. Hadfield’s savvy use of social media. His photos and observations of the world — from a storm brewing over Ireland to the snaking Nile River Delta — captivated the masses.
It was Col. Hadfield’s sons who first pushed him to use social media more than three years ago. In 2010, after his mission was announced, they set up his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“Since he first was assigned the flight, it was important to us to find a way to relay his experience back to people in a manner that they could easily follow and enjoy,” said Evan Hadfield, who is based in Darmstadt, Germany, and has been acting as his father’s social media manager during the mission.
“Twitter was merely a natural extension of that, as it allowed both direct access to people searching for more information, while simultaneously not taking up too much bandwidth for the Station’s Internet to handle.”
YouTube videos featuring Col. Hadfield explaining everything from what happens when you cry in space (tears form a watery blob) to how astronauts throw up in space (there are special bags) were so popular the CSA hired an editor to help produce them, said Ms. Kapiniari.
In all, they produced 146 videos in English and French, garnering about 25 million total views.
“When he first got to the space station, he opened a can of nuts, and he found it really funny the way that they floated around and so he filmed that. … Some of those videos were the results of just plain Canadians wondering, asking their questions,” she said.
He also generated more buzz by hosting an “Ask Me Anything” question and answer session on Reddit, as suggested by son Evan, and a surreal Twitter conversation with fictional space commander William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain Kirk, in March.
As well, prior to launch, the CSA sought out partnerships to further enhance their visibility.
Col. Hadfield teamed up with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies to write an original song, to be partially recorded during his time in space.
Col. Hadfield performed the song, called ISS (Is Somebody Singing), with a Canadian-made guitar already on board, via downlink with hundreds of students at the Ontario Science Centre, and millions of students around the world.
Another partner, Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment, seemed like a natural choice, given hockey’s status as the quintessential Canadian sport and Col. Hadfield’s love of the team. The NHL lockout that began in September 2012 appeared to dash any chances of a collaboration.
When it ended in January, Col. Hadfield professed his support by Tweeting a picture of himself holding a Maple Leafs logo. The team came calling, said Ms. Kapiniari. Col. Hadfield dropped the ceremonial puck for the team’s home opener, seemingly from the ISS into the hands of Felix Potvin and onto the ice.
Of course, the feat required a bit of movie magic. Because live connections to the ISS are so difficult logistically to plan, the puck drop was filmed about a week before the game, said Ms. Kapiniari.
Events such as live chats with two dozen schools, and the in-orbit unveiling of the $5 polymer bill with the Bank of Canada were arranged many months before launch, she said.
When Col. Hadfield packed his bags for the ISS, he brought a prototype of the bill along with him for the occasion.
“When we found out that he was going to be off planet, we just felt like it would be a wonderful opportunity,” said Julie Girard, currency spokeswoman for the Bank of Canada. “It kind of just happened, it was just a perfect constellation of events.”
Perhaps the most popular product of the astronaut’s time on board the ISS was his cover of Space Oddity. The clip on YouTube, the first music video filmed in space, has more than 12.3 million views, and counting.
The idea to record a song came up pre-flight, said Evan Hadfield, but eventually evolved into a video as well. Space Oddity was originally Evan Hadfield’s suggestion, and in January they reached out to Canadian singer and musician Emm Gryner.
The astronaut and Ontario performer had been friends for years, after Ms. Gryner wrote a song called “Christopher” about Col. Hadfield’s freefloat during a previous mission, she said.
“I actually thought maybe he should try to cover something more obscure,” Ms. Gryner said. “David Bowie has a lot of other space songs.”
But Col. Hadfield told her he felt the Bowie classic has mass appeal. He recorded his vocals and sent it to Ms. Gryner.
“That showed me what direction he wanted go in, which was very close to the original. And then I came up with the piano part,” she said.
The tracks were sent to producer Joe Corcoran. The audio was then sent back to Col. Hadfield to record the final vocals.
The track was finished in March, but they needed to get the OK from Bowie himself, said Ms. Gryner. She sent him an email with the subject line “30 days left in space.” The music legend soon after gave his blessing, and even Tweeted a link of the final video.
“What surprised me is how captured people have been by all this considering how we’re inundated with Hollywood movies about space… There’s a lot to compete with out there,” said Ms. Gryner. “But I think it’s Chris just being genuine about it, he’s not trying to be Mr. Cool. That’s the real attraction about his personality.”
This “distinct voice” came across in his communications, which was “textbook social media,” said Veronica Holmes, the president of Performance Marketing & Digital Consulting for marketing agency Zenith Optimedia.
“It’s coherent, it’s using each platform for what its strengths are,” she said. “It’s telling a genuine story filed with passion. He told things from his perspective, literally, with the pictures. He was open to responding to people. And he did it in real time. … It was a story that was also consistent. He almost created an anticipation for what was next.”
Col. Hadfield’s musical prowess was also an asset, said Ken Wong, a professor of marketing at Queen’s University.
“Not every astronaut could pull off what he pulled off. It’s a combination of a whole set of characteristics and frankly skills that he has,” said Mr. Wong. “He’s fluently bilingual, which was important to relate to the national audience. He has tremendous scientific credentials, so that nobody could ever accuse him of simply hamming it up. And it doesn’t hurt that he has some musical talent.”